Along the major river roads, environmental groups and businesses often butt heads. However, as producer John Torpy found out, those opposing forces have found common ground in their fight to balance protecting the ecosystem and making a profit.
The Mississippi River is the lifeblood for agriculture in America. The ability for producers to compete on a global scale depends on healthy inland waterways structures. For decades, the intricate system of locks and dams has guided goods to global markets.
During the years of the Great Depression, the United States Congress authorized the construction of locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi River. The system was designed as steps for river tows and other crafts to traverse from Minneapolis, Minnesota to St. Louis Missouri. Since then, barges travelling the vital shipping lane have increased in capacity allowing over sixty million tons of commodities to be moved annually down one of the most important waterways in the country.
Michael Tarpey, Army Corp of Engineers, “Many people working on the river are concerned that you know that there's a point of no return that we're not going to be able to provide the reliability of that industry has enjoyed for this 85 year history.”
But according to officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, the vast network of lock and dams has been falling into disrepair and they fear a major failure along the aging system is imminent.
Army Corps data shows shipping by barge can save $14 per ton. To ship the same amount by rail would require more than 240 rails cars or 1,050 semi-trailers stretching 14 miles down the nation’s highways. Those in the agricultural community, and officials along the river, see the efficiency of the system as a key to U.S. dominance in global commodity trading.
In Davenport, Iowa, aging lock gates, crumbling concrete, and lengthy repairs plague operators. The Army Corps of Engineers in the Rock Island District points out that even though Lock and Dam 15 facilities are $400 million dollars behind schedule with repairs and renovations, in 2014 they were able to keep over $3.5 billion worth of products moving up and down the Great River.
Aaron Dunlop, Army Corps of Engineers, “Now it's more critical than ever that we make infrastructure investments in the Lock and Dam system because frankly there is no other way to move this kind of volume of commodities throughout the US.”
The case is the same on the Illinois River. At the Waterway’s Dresden lock and dam, the repair bill has reached $300 million dollars and is years behind schedule, but the facility manages to push $7 billion dollars’ worth of commodities through its gates annually, making it the third busiest lock and dam in the nation.
For businesses that make the Mighty Mississippi River their office, infrastructure upkeep is a must. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, Brennan Marine has been running on inland waterways across the country for almost a century. The company employs close to 100 people in Wisconsin, and about 400 nationwide. From lock and dam repairs to environmental habitat projects, the company has worked with the Army Corps of Engineers for more than eight decades, experiencing the struggle between what needs to be repaired and what will be repaired.
Adam Binsfeld, Brennan Marine, “the budget that the corps has to work at within any given year isn't enough to even scratch the surface of what is required with the aging infrastructure. You just gottta get creative.”
In an effort to help alleviate high costs associated with lock and dam repairs, and improve how quickly repairs are completed, owners of barge and tow companies along the Mississippi river imposed a fuel tax on themselves.
Adam Binsfeld, Brennan Marine, “When we got the fuel tax increase it went from $0.20 to $0.29 and that will have significant impact on speeding some of these projects that are critical today that weren’t going to be funded for 15-20 years.”
Over a decade ago, federal officials began to look at the issues facing the Upper Mississippi River Basin. Congress tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with studying the U.S. lock and dam system and submit plans on how to confront the problems that might interrupt shipping. The Army Corps came back with the Navigation Ecosystem Sustainability Program or NESP.
The legislation ended up uniting shippers and environmentalists - two groups that normally sit in opposition to one another. Both found common ground somewhere between getting 60 percent of the nation’s crops flowing down the Mississippi and keeping the river open as an essential migratory flyway used by 40 percent of the nation’s waterfowl.
Gretchen Benjamin, The Nature Conservancy,” This was the first time we were going to really look at how do we put the two pieces together and walk in harmony together to try and get the river to a sustainable point for everybody, people and nature.”
The key to the measure was a dual purpose plan that called for every dollar spent on river infrastructure to be matched by a dollar spent on the environment.
While the measure passed in 2007, the work proposed was never funded and the plan to revive the Upper Mississippi River remains on the table. However, both parties continue to pressure the point on Capitol Hill.
Michael Tarpey, Army Corps of Engineers, “Environmental groups and navigation groups, along with labor unions are supporting it. They’re annually going up to Congress and on the behalf of of NESP and you know lobby with Congress to support it. So it's a unique program when you look at it from that perspective. You don't have the navigation environmental groups at each other's throats, but they're actually working hand-in-hand to promote something that they see as a benefit to the river.”
While the Army Corps, environmental groups, and the navigation industry continue to fight for a sliver of the federal funding pie, time continues to tick away on the nation’s locks and dams.
Aaron Dunlop, Army Corps of Engineers, “So It really has long-term effects for the economy and has long-term effects for the nation as a whole that I think a lot of people just don't realize.”
Gretchen Benjamin, The Nature Conservancy, “We need to figure out how to have the river work as a healthy organism at the same time and that's really where we're getting to today.”
For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy